Conservative social media app Parler has been delisted from all major internet platforms following their role in organizing and preparing for the United States Capitol riots on January 6.
Parler—a platform that has been described as a conservative-friendly alternative to Twitter and was founded on the basis of free speech—was an important tool used by rioters prior to the storming of the Capitol. Individual extremists used Parler to coordinate travel on the ground in order to avoid the police, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog.
Parler launched in August 2018 following moderation policies instated by Facebook and Twitter that drove many alt-right extremists off their platform. The network’s history remains mysterious, but was co-founded by John Matze Jr., Jared Thomson and Breitbart investor Rebekah Mercer—daughter of Cambridge Analytica co-founder Robert Mercer.
Notable Parler users include President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, conservative pundits Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopoulos, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and the alt-right extremist group known as the Proud Boys. The Trump administration’s campaign also has an account on Parler.
Google was the first tech giant to take action against Parler, delisting the app from the Google Play Store on January 8 according to CNN. “We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the U.S.,” said Google in a press release. “In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.”
Apple followed a day later, removing the app from the App Store until they have “demonstrated [their] ability to effectively moderate and filter the dangerous and harmful content” on the app, as reported by USA Today. “We looked at the incitement to violence that was on [Parler],” added Apple CEO Tim Cook in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on January 17. “We don’t consider that free speech and incitement to violence have an intersection.”
Amazon Web Services (AWS) additionally pulled hosting support for Parler, effectively removing the network from the internet until it finds a new hosting service. Parler, in response, issued a lawsuit against Amazon. The lawsuit asks a federal court for a temporary restraining order against Amazon, according to CNN. Parler claimed Amazon breached their contract by not providing a 30-day notice of termination, and that the withdrawal of AWS hosting violates anti-practice laws.
Parler additionally lost support from its database partner Scylla Enterprise, as well as its cloud communications platform Twilio, according to Parler CEO Matze in an interview with Reuters on January 13. Contracts with workplace communication service Slack and financial service American Express were also terminated. The loss of Twilio support unveiled extreme security vulnerabilities within Parler’s code, plunging the company into even deeper trouble than before.
Parler was left exposed following Twilio’s departure, as online users realized that the site’s poor code and infrastructure contained no authentication, allowing users to create fake accounts and increment over data and posts on the site. Twitter user @donk_enby united with internet data hoarders to scrape the entire network’s data using a publicly-accessible Lua script that created dummy accounts en masse to slowly grab data from Parler’s database. It only took the team a few days to grab all 70 TB of the site’s data, according to cybersecurity site CyberNews.
“Everything we grabbed was publicly available on the web, we just made a permanent public snapshot of it,” @donk_enby said in an interview with Vice.
“only things that were available publicly via the web were archived,” @donk_enby tweeted. “i don’t have you [sic] e-mail address, phone or credit card number. unless you posted it yourself on Parler.”
The release of Parler’s data to the public has gleaned a light on the site’s extreme lack of moderation and severe amount of content advocating for violence against politicians. A data scientist who goes by the handle @anonymousdata_ revealed to CyberNews that hashtags such as #bringbackpublicexecutions and #pelosi4gallows trended in the days surrounding the Capitol riots.
One of the more glaring security vulnerabilities within Parler was its failure to scrub posts and media such as videos or images of metadata—small pieces of data that accompany larger pieces of data containing information about the data itself, such as the time and date a photo was taken or the location it was taken at. By failing to scrub metadata from their posts, Parler inadvertently exposed location data for videos and images posted on the platform. Some of this location data was traced back to police stations and military bases, according to Gizmodo.
The decision to delist Parler by Google, Apple and Amazon, follows recent attempts by big tech to remove alt-right extremism from their platforms. Such decisions have been met with polarizing reactions, but many argue taking accountability for online hate speech and extremism is more important than having unmoderated spaces.
“I hope that [the data] can be used to hold people accountable and to prevent more death,” @donk_enby said, according to Vice. “I think people should be allowed to have their own opinion as long as they can act civilized, on [January 6] we saw what can happen if they don’t.”